Conversation with an Ertegun Alumna: Alifya Locharchalwala

On Thursday 25 February, a group of Ertegun Scholars and Resident Alumni gathered virtually to take part in a conversation about post-Ertegun possibilities with Alumna Alifya Loharchalwala. Alifya came from India for the 2017-2018 academic year, the first Ertegun Scholar doing the interdisciplinary MSt in Women’s Studies. Reconnecting after a few years apart was a particular joy for those of us who have been around for a while!

Gervase led the discussion, which was wide-ranging, touching on topics from what it means to be a humanist, to the practical need for a salary in the real world of work. But with questions and input from all comers, the conversation flowed naturally, and coalesced around a few main areas, which Alifya spoke about with remarkable clarity, honesty, and enthusiasm: those of us who are wondering about life beyond academia had our eyes opened to some of the possibilities that exist.

Alifya is currently working for the social development NGO Empower as a Senior Programme Officer, and the first part of the conversation focused on how she ended up there. Her account of her search for meaningful work in the aftermath of her time as a Scholar was both matter-of-fact and inspiring: for example, she talked about working out not what she actually wanted to do, but what she didn’t, reframing the issue completely. Rather than applying to existing jobs, she emailed organisations she liked directly. This led to a broader conversation about the changing nature of work in the modern world, and the likelihood that most Scholars will have shifting and unpredictable career trajectories – and the excitement and uncertainty that goes with that.

Alifya’s present role involves linking investment allocations with “grassroots” NGOs, focused on education, employment, health and wellbeing for young people, particularly young women in urban areas in India – the focus on the role of gender in disadvantage is her particular concern. She spoke about her own initiative to build partnerships between organisations working on different, but related problems – her delight in making connections, and bringing people together with their distinctive skillsets to work on multifaceted problems shone through.

The final main theme of the discussion was the relationship between the humanities and the world of social development in which Alifya works: how had her time as an Ertegun Scholar, surrounded by ‘humanists’ affected the way she sees her current work? And which gave more joy – studying and learning, or working in practical ways to help people? Alifya spoke eloquently about the joys of learning for learning’s sake, the opportunities offered by her time at Oxford (and we all remembered how she attended every seminar and conference she possibly could!), but when asked how being a humanist affected her work, she laughed and candidly explained that she had very little awareness of such labels, or the expectations they entail, revealing her comfort with ambiguity, and willingness to engage with whichever people, ideas, or research would be helpful.

Discussing a potential DPhil project, an interrogation of the meaning of ‘empowerment’ as it is used as a term within social development, Alifya showcased the best of Ertegun possibilities: the recognition that words can be used to conceal and obfuscate as well as to reveal and clarify, and thinking about what is meant by the terminology employed by organisations is part of the work that needs to be done. If the Ertegun programme is about giving scholars the chance to extend their vision and to act as ambassadors for the humanities, then Alifya gave us all new ways to imagine doing that in our careers beyond Ertegun House.


Ursula Westwood